If there is one thing that is starting to stand out about Ross Barkley it’s that he doesn’t lack for spirit and he doesn’t hide when the going gets tough. Both were traits clearly in evidence a year ago when, shell-shocked, he was substituted by Roberto Martinez during the miserable Anfield derby that hastened the Catalan’s dismissal at the end of the season.
The Blues were in the midst of one of the biggest humiliations an Everton team has endured in living memory but all Barkley wanted to do was keep playing to try and redress the balance somewhat for his side of the city on a wretched evening across Stanley Park.
So, too, this season, be it in the wider context of 2016-17 or in microcosm during matches, the 23-year-old appears to simply shrug off adversity or poor form and keep plugging away until things go right again. Rightly criticised by Ronald Koeman for his iffy displays in the first half of the campaign, since the turn of the year and particularly at Goodison Park Barkley has demonstrated his ability to learn, to grow and to develop into an important component in the Dutchman’s side.
For his biggest backers, his contract situation remains a source of concern but he seemed to reaffirm his love of Everton and, perhaps, a desire to stay at the club with a defiant celebration following the second goal against Burnley this afternoon; a strike that proved decisive in the match (even if Ben Mee was officially credited with an own goal) and a personal moment of triumph at the end of an unexpectedly difficult week for the player personally.
Barkley could not have guessed that when he went out in town on Sunday evening to celebrate the 4-2 win over Leicester City that he would end the night being sucker-punched in a bar. Or that a sewer rat masquerading as a journalist would seize upon the incident to launch an astonishingly below-the-belt attack on him and the city from which he hails later in the week.
But he used the arena of Goodison Park to put the drama behind him by putting in a progressively good performance, one that yielded a vital goal to restore Everton’s lead in the game at one end while denying the Clarets two goals at the other with goal line clearances. What better way to respond to a gutter journalist than that?
Beyond Ross, this was a significant day for Everton as a whole. The Blues registered an eighth successive home win in the league for the first time since 1990 and Romelu Lukaku equalled William Dean’s record of scoring in nine games in a row in all competitions at Goodison Park, one that hadn’t been matched for 89 years.
Koeman’s men also moved into fifth place in the Premier League, level on points with Manchester United. and three points ahead of Arsenal, although both clubs have played three fewer matches and the Gunners travel to hapless Middlesbrough on Monday to face a team who have singularly failed to do Everton any favours thus far in terms beating our rivals while managing to hold us goalless on our own visit to the Riverside.
Today’s ultimately comfortable victory looked like it would be anything but in the early going. Burnley were “up for it” in every way and appeared to be carrying out instructions from Sean Dyche to the letter for the first half hour or so. By that stage, the Toffees were under no illusions about their need to battle in this one against a disciplined and energetic Clarets team who pressed tenaciously when they didn’t have the ball and looked to pick up the second balls off Sam Vokes when they went forward themselves.
Lukaku had an early sight of goal when Mason Holgate picked him out with a cross and he shot straight at Tom Heaton and Idrissa Gueye tested the goalkeeper with a strong low effort but until 10 minutes before half time it was Burnley who looked the more likely to score.
Michael Keane thought he had netted when he rose highest at the back post to guide a set-piece delivery back across goal towards the far corner but Barkley had anticipated it brilliantly and headed off his own goal line in the 17th minute. Two minutes later, after Joel Robles, not for the last time, had flapped at a high ball into the box, Matthew Lowton’s inviting cross went begging as it whipped across the Blues’ six-yard box.
Then Vokes had two chances to break the deadlock in the space of two minutes, first when he was sent clear by Joey Barton but was marshalled wide expertly by Phil Jagielka before Robles blocked his eventual shot; then when Jagielka fluffed an attempted back pass but the Burnley striker did little better with the gift, shooting tamely straight at Robles.
At the other end, Holgate forced a good save from Heaton as his low shot camr through a forest of legs and the ‘keeper pushed it away one-handed to keep things goalless heading into the half-time interval.
While Koeman has been been curiously reluctant to change things in more difficult circumstances away from home recently, he had no compunction in switching things up at half time today by withdrawing the unfortunate Gueye — the Senegalese was having one of his better afternoons but was the midfielder sacrificed, probably because he'd already been booked — and introducing Enner Valencia for the second half.
And the Ecuadorian made an almost instant impact when he exchanged passes with Lukaku outside the box and then stung Heaton’s palms with a powerful drive that the ‘keeper parried away. Holgate won a corner after Everton regained the ball and from situation, the Blues scored from a corner for the fourth game in a row, a far cry from the Martinez days when they couldn’t convert from a set-piece to save their lives.
Valencia and then Ashley Williams helped Leighton Baines’s corner on where Jagielka stretched the despatch a header that might have crossed the line before Heaton could paw it out but certainly did when the Everton defender followed up on the rebound, referee Mark Clattenburg signalling confirmation from the goal line decision system.
That should have been the platform on which Koeman’s men could go on and build a healthy advantage but they were pegged back within three minutes following an inexplicable foul by Robles on Vokes. Chasing a ball pinged across the home penalty area, the Burnley man was heading away from goal but instead of ushering him further out, Robles tried to tackle him instead and chopped him down, conceding an obvious spot kick that Vokes himself converted.
Everton are nothing if not patient and determined these days and even though Mirallas was having one of those days where it just didn’t look like it was going to happen for him despite plenty of work-rate and some nice individual moments, you just had the sense that they had enough to go on and win.
Mirallas should have scored in the 58th minute when Barkley picked up Lukaku’s flick-on and played the former Belgian in on the left side of the area for a clear shot at goal but he shot weakly at Heaton. Five minutes later, Mirallas almost did register after he scuffed his initials shot and then prodded the second attempt off the post.
Seconds later, Lukaku was picked out again in the centre by Holgate but he could only steer a header too close to the ‘keeper before both Mirallas and Barkley had shots charged down by a Burnley defence that refused to go quietly.
They were undone by a sloppy pass by Barton and then a double deflection that helped Barkley restore Everton’s lead with 19 minutes to go. Lukaku’s pass for Mirallas was a touch heavy but the latter retrieved it near the byline, slid a pass back to Barkley on the edge of the box and after jinking to the left of Barton, he fired a low shot off Keane, then Mee and into the goal off the post.
The 23-year-old’s celebration was one of release — standing tall on the advertising hoardings, he drank in the jubilation in the Gwladys Street before returning to the field of play to receive the customary booking for daring to celebrate too much with his fans. Still, he repeatedly patted the badge on his chest and pointed to all sides of the ground in what must have a moment of particular personal satisfaction.
Three minutes after that, the game was secure. Baines found Lukaku with a pass from the touchline and the big Belgian took it from there, rolling Keane in trademark fashion before powering an unstoppable left-foot shot inside Heaton’s near post to make it 3-1.
And that, bar a late Barton free kick that came off the wall, another header off his line by Barkley and an uncharacteristic hash of a shot by Lukaku at the death, was that. Yet another home win and more signs of strength and resolve from this Everton side at Goodison Park.
The onus now becomes one of boldness away from home from Koeman as the Blues travel to West Ham and Swansea either side of Chelsea’s visit to the Grand Old Lady at the end of the month. Keep winning and there is every chance that Everton can improve on the seventh-place finish that seemed inevitable up until now.
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